The Oval: Why Card Left, and What’s Next

Andrew Card liked to say that his job as White House chief of staff was to figure out the difference between want and need. Staffers could get to see the president if they really needed the face time with Bush. But if they simply wanted to see the president, then Card would slam the door.

Now the question is whether Card wanted to quit his job or whether he needed to. The White House announced Card’s resignation on Tuesday and his replacement, budget director Joshua Bolten.

Card first offered his resignation three weeks ago, according to the White House. That was just after the first polls showed just how much the White House was bleeding support after the Dubai ports story. A CBS poll gave Bush a job approval rating of only 34 percent and a personal favorability rating of 29 percent. ( NEWSWEEK’s poll later showed the president with a 36 percent approval rating.) Bush won some respite from the ports storm when he traveled to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. But within days of his return, he suffered another defeat in the House on the ports deal. One day later, the finely crafted compromise between the White House and the United Arab Emirates collapsed and the Dubai company agreed to sell its new U.S. operations. That was the day Card offered to quit.

It’s unfair to lay the blame for the ports debacle solely at Card’s door. But it’s also important to understand the context of his offer to quit and Bush’s mulling over whether to accept. Card was more than the man who controlled access to the Oval Office. He was one of the two chief lobbyists for the White House on Capitol Hill—the other being Vice President Dick Cheney. And nothing encapsulated Bush’s loss of control in Congress like the ports takeover.

Cheney and Card were originally brought into Bush’s inner circle in 2000 to fill the biggest gap in Austin: insider knowledge of Washington. Since then, they have both played the role of Bush’s ambassador to Congress—pushing the president’s agenda in good times, and soaking up criticism in bad times.

Card got more than his fair share of criticism in the rocky course of the last year. His soft-spoken and affable style made him a much easier target for sniping members of Congress than the brooding, intimidating presence of Dick Cheney. It was Card who took the full brunt of attack in person from GOP leaders at their retreat at a luxury resort overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in early December. House Speaker Dennis Hastert ripped Card and presidential counselor Dan Bartlett for poor communications with the troops on the Hill, according to congressional Republicans in attendance. Hastert said the White House had “blown it” with Congress after a year of failed Social Security reform, Hurricane Katrina and the doomed Harriet Miers pick.

All that was before the watershed of the Dubai ports story. In recent weeks, Card has publicly embraced his role as human sponge. He told The New York Times that people should direct their criticism at him, not the president. “I take responsibility for everything that has not happened well,” he said. “When people are frustrated, they should be frustrated at me. It’s my job.”

Card’s tone at his farewell remarks Tuesday in the Oval Office echoed those sentiments of the humble, loyal staffer. “You’re a good man, Mr. President, and you do great things,” he said.

What was even more striking than his gratitude to Bush was what he left unsaid. Card hinted at no plans for what he would do now. He gave no reason for leaving other than his reference to the famous verse in Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season.” In fact Card had outlived his seasonal cycle as chief of staff at least twice, surviving the normal two-year tenure of what is traditionally a burn-out job.

In Card’s terms, there was no question that he didn’t want to go. But his judgment was that he needed to go. Card admires and adores Bush. He spends every working hour with him, from predawn to postsunset. He even spends his weekends biking with him.

So it was surprising to notice Card’s low profile in the White House during the last several weeks. He was not spotted traveling during any of the president’s most recent domestic swings aimed at shoring up public support for the war and his second-term agenda. Card also skipped Bush’s trip to India and Pakistan earlier this month, unusual for a chief of staff who usually makes most foreign trips. Most notably, Card was absent during Bush’s news conference last Tuesday. According to White House staff, Card had called in sick several days last week, complaining of flu symptoms. According to one administration official, it was the first time anyone in the West Wing could remember Card taking a sick leave during his five and a half years on the job.

Are more changes afoot? Administration officials remain mum on whether there will be further staff shake-up. Yet at least one key staff vacancy remains ready to be filled. Bush has yet to hire a new domestic policy adviser in the wake of Claude Allen’s resignation last month. ( Allen was arrested on retail-fraud charges in suburban Washington a few weeks after his resignation.) Bolten’s promotion also means the administration will have to fill his old job, as the president’s top economic adviser.

At the same time, there are other key personnel moves in other parts of the White House. Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy quit earlier this month and was just replaced by Ken Lisaius, a longtime White House communications staffer and former Bush-Cheney regional campaign spokesman. Meanwhile, the White House communications office just brought in a well-known Senate staffer to help coordinate the administration’s message on the economy and homeland security. Blain Rethmeier, a top aide to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this week. A Justice Department press aide before coming to the Hill, Rethmeier helped shepherd Bush’s two Supreme Court nominees on the Hill last year.

For all the new faces in the West Wing, nobody should expect the old faces to dish on the White House. There’s a good reason why Card left so much unsaid in the Oval Office on Tuesday. The seminal experience for Bush and Card was their time in the White House under the president’s father. Card told NEWSWEEK in December that his close relationship with George W. Bush was shaped by their time watching the leaking and double-crossing among 41’s aides—especially the plotting against the father’s chief of staff John Sununu. “I’m sure he was informed by the experience he saw when his dad was president,” Card said. “And that’s one reason why he has confided in me.”

Card stood out then as that rare 41 staffer: the one who refrained from the backstabbing. He stands out today for doing the same over an extraordinarily long time, including at the moment of his departure. The verse from Ecclesiastes says as much: “A time to rend, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

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